x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Documents for change: The List

The film The List follows one man's attempt to rectify the US's red-tape approach to resettling Iraqis.

When Kirk Johnson grew up in Mid-West America, every night at the dinner table his father would ask his children: "What have you done for your community today?"

It's an ethos that has stayed with Johnson, whose story is the focus of the new documentary film The List.

After the American invasion of Iraq, which he did not support, the Arabic speaking Johnson decided that he should help with the reconstruction effort. Working for USAID, he soon discovered that Iraqi citizens who worked for the organisation were not treated equally, the most obvious example being that only American citizens working for the organisation received bullet-proof vests. Johnson refused to wear his, in a show of solidarity.

The personal cost to the reconstruction worker was high. After a year in Iraq and on a family holiday to the Dominican Republic, he began suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. He returned home.

When Iraqi citizens working for the Americans became primary targets in the war, Johnson campaigned for them to be allowed to move to the United States. He posted an email online from his co-worker Yaghdan describing how he and his family had received death threats because of his work. Johnson then began receiving emails from countless other Iraqis in similar situations and he began making a list of people he wanted to help get through the red tape and into America.

It's at this point that director Beth Murphy became interested in the story. The documentarian had previously made Beyond Belief, about American wives widowed by the World Trade Center attacks and who then went to Afghanistan to help war widows there. In addition to directing, the Boston resident Murphy works for the International Institute of New England, which helps resettle refugees.

Speaking in a hotel in New York where The List, her new film about Johnson, premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, Murphy says: "In 2007, the resettlement department was gearing up to receive a lot of Iraqis. There was beginning to be talk at that time of this unique population of US-affiliated Iraqis who were in danger for that reason. We're waiting and waiting and then no one came.

"For me, it was a red flag, a question mark; I wanted to find out why no one was coming and this led me to Kirk and his work. We met and I knew immediately that I wanted to follow his journey wherever it would take him."

The Listdescribes Kirk's story and shows how he engaged pro bono lawyers to help Iraqi citizens through the red tape of the Patriot Act. When he managed to get Yaghdan into the US, he moved in with Johnson's parents. "Yaghdan is now like a son to them," says Murphy. "This was something Kirk hoped would be the result of his work: regular Americans would have the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with Iraqis and that would change perceptions and break down barriers.

"I think one of the most dramatic sentiments that Kirk expresses in the film is when he says there are allies and enemies, and if we can't distinguish between the two, what is left? If we can't tell the difference between someone who is our enemy and our friend, how do we fight terrorism?"

Murphy wants the documentary to be a call to action, but admits: "There is a doubled-edged sword to seeing The List. People can watch this and think that it's great that he is working on this issue. I'm mad and I want this problem to be solved, but here is somebody who had got this covered. You're solving it so I don't have to."

The US has still not given the Iraqis who worked for them the right to apply to live in America. Indeed, one pertinent scene shows how it's easier for dogs from Iraq to enter the US than it is for people. A major problem is that these are Iraqis that neither side wants to help, Murphy says. "It was the one thing both sides could agree on in the war, that the people who worked for America are traitors."

They would have been forgotten, were it not for men like Johnson.